Working Memory – The Ultimate Second Language Learning Device!

Last week we celebrated the arrival of the 100th volume in our Second Language Acquisition series. This new book, Working Memory and Second Language Learning written by Zhisheng (Edward) Wen is the second volume of his in the same series. Last year we published Edward’s co-edited volume with Mailce Mota and Arthur McNeill on the  same topic (Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition and Processing). In this post, Edward shares with us his decade-long passion and unceasing enthusiasm for the Working memory – Second Language Acquisition (WM-SLA) concept. 

9781783095711When I was finally able to touch and feel with my very own fingers the first copy of my book that I had just received (hot off the press) from Multilingual Matters, I simply just could not let go of it from my hands. This little purple book, thin and light as it may feel, had occupied such a great proportion of my life over the past 10 years. It has virtually dominated much of my thinking and writing (and countless re-writings), relentlessly forcing me into this weird habit of tracking and consuming an enormous amount of literature from multiple disciplines straddling applied linguistics, educational psychology, cognitive science, and even neuroscience (as long as this buzzword of ‘working memory’ appears in their keyword list). I have since posted this extended list of over 100 pages of references on my personal academic website for interested readers to download freely (and I promise to keep updating it frequently to include whatever new entries I come across on my way).

This latest book is actually my second in Multilingual Matters’ Second Language Acquisition series. My previous one, that I co-edited with Mailce Borges Mota and Arthur McNeill, Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition and Processing was published in May last year. In essence, the edited volume featured theoretical and empirical chapters contributed by leading scholars in both working memory (e.g. Alan Baddeley, Nelson Cowan, and Randall Engle etc.) and second language acquisition (e.g. Alan Juffs, Peter Skehan, John Williams etc.), whereas this new book represents my own personal understanding and theoretical account of the pivotal role of working memory in first and second language learning and processing.

9781783093571Given the different formats and genres of these two books, readers are encouraged to read both of them together, as they are actually meant to be complementary rather than competing with each other. Details of how to order the books at a discount price can be found at the bottom of the post. Overall, these two books should present a more comprehensive and in-depth account of the intricate relationships between working memory and second language acquisition, processing and development. That said, I will now just focus on my second book in this post and highlight its major themes and key features. (For those who also wish to read my blog post written for the co-edited volume, you can find it here).

Getting down to business then, this new book is divided into three parts. The first two parts are devoted to the extensive literature reviews of both working memory research in cognitive science (addressing such fundamental issues as working memory theories, models, and measurement) and applied linguistics research (synthesizing second language studies exploring working memory effects). Building on these cumulative research findings and emerging insights, the third part of the book proposes an integrated perspective on theorizing and measuring working memory in SLA, which culminates in the formulation of the Phonological/Executive (P/E) model. As such, the P/E model is inspired by three major sources based on research syntheses of multiple lines of inquiry.

To begin with, an extensive literature review in cognitive science gives rise to unified theories of the working memory concept as a precursor to the P/E model of WM and SLA proposed in the book. Namely, working memory is a memory sub-system that (a) has limited capacity in holding information and duration; (b) has multiple components and multiple cognitive mechanisms and functions embedded within each component; (c) acts as the interface/gateway for information flow between short-term memory and long-term memory.

Then, there is also the second line of research lending support to the P/E model, which concerns the substantial literature of studies conducted by cognitive psychologists and psycholinguists (from both sides of the Atlantic) that have explored the implications of working memory components/functions for first language acquisition. This research synthesis gives rise to the identification of two key working memory components (together with their associated mechanisms) found to be most directly relevant for language acquisition, i.e., phonological working memory (PWM) and executive working memory (EWM) that are related to various learning domains and processes in first language acquisition and processing.

Finally, as the two key working memory components (PWM and EWM) have been pinned down, together with their associated mechanisms and functions, what we need (and lack) is an effective framework to integrate these established working memory theories with SLA theories. Before such integration can take place, however, it is important to first identify what similarities and differences may exist between first language acquisition and SLA. Building on this premise, I propose in the book to re-conceptualise SLA in more specific terms of representation (e.g., vocabulary, grammar), skills (e.g., L2 sub-skills learning, processing and performance) and development (e.g., L2 proficiency growth), so that each of these domains/skills can be examined through the new lens of these two working memory components (PWM and EWM) in light of their potential mechanisms and functions.

As can be expected, the final outcome of this step-by-step procedure culminates in a general conceptual framework of WM and SLA, and from it, the Phonological/Executive (P/E) model naturally emerges and gradually takes shape. More specifically, PWM is posited to underpin those chunking-based acquisitional and developmental aspects of SLA domains (such as vocabulary/lexis, formulaic sequences and morpho-syntactic constructions/grammatical structure). Informed by these theoretical links, it is better to interpret PWM as the second language acquisition device.

On the other hand, EWM is postulated to underpin some selective offline processes in L2 sub-skills learning and processing, as well as some real-time performance areas during L2 comprehension (listening and reading), interaction (e.g., noticing, focus on form etc.) and production (and here translation/interpreting can also be included as a special case of combining L1 comprehension and L2 production). Given these theoretical links, EWM is best interpreted as a second language processing device or simply, a second language processor.

By now, I do hope that I have given readers a glimpse into the many ideas discussed in my latest book. Other ideas that I have explored in more detail in the book include the relationship between working memory and foreign language aptitude as well as their configured positions in L2 development. There is also an in-depth discussion of the implications of the P/E model for L2 task-based planning and performance. To sum up, I have a strong conviction and equally strong evidence to support my personal understanding and positioning of working memory in second language acquisition and processing. And that is, I consider working memory, as shown in the title of this blog post, to be the ultimate second language learning device! In other words, without working memory, simply nothing can ever happen in SLA!

Zhisheng (Edward) Wen, Macao Polytechnic Institute, edwardwen@ipm.edu.mo
Edward’s website

If you would like more information about Edward’s research monograph and his co-edited book, please see our website or his personal homepage or just contact him directly at the email address above. 

To buy both books at 50% discount please use the code PREORDER50 at the checkout on our website. This discount is available until the end of September.

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